Analysis |

Israeli Boasting on Iran Isn’t Foreign Policy, It's Just Bragging

Everyone knows what Israel is ardently and vociferously against in the Iran nuclear talks, but no one seems to know what Israel is for – including its own prime minister

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Biden and Bennett
Biden and Bennett share the same goal of stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but disagree on how to get there Credit: אבי אוחיון / לעמ
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Sometimes, a country should just shut up. Opacity and ambiguity make for far better policy than bragging.

Sometimes, when the circumstances are multifaceted and sensitive – as they are between Israel and the United States on the Iran issue – a country should make extra effort to shut up.

It is not clear where it all started. Was the United States seriously considering delisting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list? Or was it an Iranian demand that the Americans would inevitably reject as a separate issue that does not pertain directly to the nuclear agreement talks?

Whatever the case, Israel immediately expressed its dissatisfaction and was later happy to claim credit when President Joe Biden announced that he will not be delisting the IRGC’s Quds Force from the list. In fact, “senior Israeli sources” said, this could derail the entire nuclear deal.

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Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s arrogant bragging. Either way, it is unclear why Israel would boast about it rather than maintain ambiguity. What is even less clear is what’s in it for Israel.

There is no question the IRGC is a terrorist organization that is responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans, through the years. Formed in 1979 after the Islamic revolution and known as Sepâh in Persian, the IRGC is a combined ground-air-naval force tasked with defending the political system from domestic and foreign enemies.

Iranian supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saluting members of the IRGC in 2019.Credit: KHAMENEI.IR / AFP

It is a vile, powerful, well-funded military arm of the ayatollahs’ regime. No one outside of Iran disputes this.

It is also clear that delisting the IRGC from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list would be a symbolic rather than substantive move, since the sanctions on the organization would not be lifted. But there’s a moral statement here: If, as the Americans argued after the original deal in 2015, Iran’s nonnuclear activities are destabilizing, violent and malicious but have nothing to do with its ominous nuclear program, then the IRGC should not be delisted.

Appearing last Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was unequivocal: “In my personal opinion, I believe the IRGC Quds Force to be a terrorist organization, and I do not support them being delisted,” he told the committee members.

Some were quick to point to the distinction he made between the IRGC and its subsidiary Quds Force as an indication that this may be the formula that will be adopted: keep the Quds Force on the list and delist IRGC. That, of course, is legally and politically complicated, and senseless.

Maintaining the IRGC’s designation as a terrorist organization or delisting the IRGC is not Israel’s real dilemma. Focusing on that side issue highlights the absence of a comprehensive and coherent policy, not the existence of one.

Whether or not Israel was actually and effectively involved in exerting pressure on the Biden administration is not that important.

If Israel is just needlessly bragging and taking credit for it, it's rather on-brand – and may delude some in Jerusalem into thinking they changed the course and dynamics of the nuclear talks.

But that is equally unimportant in terms of having a policy designed in the event an agreement is made, as well as one in case the talks break off.

Whether the United States ever intended to delist the IRGC, as Iran reportedly demanded, is ambiguous. It could be that the Americans floated the trial balloon without ever intending to pursue that policy, only to distract from the nuclear deal. The administration was conscious that such an action would aggravate, annoy and elicit sharp reaction in both the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and in Israel.

Conversely, it may be Iran that made the demand in order to later demonstrate a willingness to compromise, or as a tripwire issue to avoid the agreement altogether.

Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri and IRGC Aerospace Force Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh standing together during the unveiling of a missile at an undisclosed location in ICredit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS

These are all speculative propositions, but they emphasize Israel’s policy confusion.

In none of these contingencies is Israel clear on what it exactly wants that is realistic and attainable. Everyone knows what Israel is ardently and vociferously against, but no one seems to know what Israel is for.

The Prime Minister’s Office was briefing political reporters Saturday on how the U.S. decision not to delist the IRGC may disrupt and jeopardize the entire nuclear deal, and how this could turn out to be an achievement.

That’s very impressive. But then what? Does no agreement create a better security environment for Israel? How so? An unmonitored, unsupervised Iran pursuing a military nuclear capability is better than an agreement? An Iran that is continuing to develop an expansive precise missiles plan? An Iran that is funding, fostering and employing proxy terrorist organizations to destabilize the region, and doing so while progressing with its nuclear program?

The same Israel that belatedly conceded that the original agreement, however imperfect, did block Iran’s path to nuclear weapons and left it on the far side of the “threshold state” spectrum is now saying that a new deal is worse and detrimental to its security.

The same Israel which admitted that then-President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear agreement in May 2018 was a “net negative” for Israel, bringing Iran as close as it ever was to producing a nuclear device through improved enrichment centrifuges and accumulation of enriched Uranium, is now “against any agreement.” Being against it has merits, but it is not a policy with clear objectives and deliverables.

Iran and the renewed nuclear agreement were not a top U.S. foreign policy priority even before the Ukraine crisis and war erupted. Nor was Iran a Chinese, Russian or European Union priority. It was something that needed to be done and removed from the table. No more, no less.

Does Israel actually think that in the absence of an agreement – which Israel is prematurely beginning to take credit for – the United States will heed Israel’s warnings and indulge its anxieties? Does Israel believe that the interplay of American, Chinese and Russian interests is playing to its advantage on Iran?

What would Israel do if the United States plainly says: “You’re an ally. You’re powerful. We support you. We respect your concerns and apprehension. Do what you feel you have to do.”

If there is no agreement – good, bad or ugly – that may very well be the dilemma facing Israel.

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